The body-positive movement continues to grow. Which is awesome. But something else is bubbling up in the sphere of self-confidence...
E“Every step, no matter how slow, is progress.” “I want to feel at ease and accept how I look.” These are reasonable, achievable statements – and that’s precisely the point. Slowly, around the world, the language of loving your body is changing. Amid the roar of positivity – from activists, panel talks and memes – a more subdued but no less powerful phenomenon is pushing forward. It’s an understanding that not everyone can easily develop out-and-proud, shout-it-from-theroof-tops love for their body; that sometimes even tolerance is a battle. This is the premise of body neutrality, a credo that prioritises acceptance. To understand how we got here, it’s helpful to know where we have come from. The term “body positivity” is thought to have been coined in the 1990s by feminist activists Connie Sobczak and Deb Burgard. It gained traction online, where a vocal community began to use digital platforms to share thoughts, feelings, hopes and anxieties about their bodies. Only, for some, the idea of loving, hell, even liking their body was setting the bar too high. In recent years, body neutrality has emerged as an alternative and is quickly gaining ground. Vocal advocates, such as The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, are encouraging conversations on the topic, while the Instagram hashtag boasts more than 4000 posts and counting.
The trend, decoded
“It’s about accepting your body despite any perceived imperfections,” explains Dr Bryony Bamford, a clinical psychologist specialising in eating disorders.
“In doing so, you stop allowing those imperfections to impact your emotions or day-to-day life the way they do for those who have particularly poor body image. For those women, the jump from disliking or even hating their bodies to loving them is a vast one.”
That unrealistic leap is an idea that even the most vocal within the body-positive movement acknowledge. Megan Jayne Crabbe (@bodyposipanda) is an activist and author of Body Positive Power.
“For me, being body positive is about having a strong-as-fuck belief in yourself, but that’s a very difficult thing,” she says. “You can’t just magically start thinking, ‘Hey, nobody else’s opinion matters!’
You can’t expect people to go from years of criticising their bodies to suddenly thinking they’re flawless.”
Anxiety over having the ideal body for her profession has been an issue for model and writer Rebecca Pearson, but coming across the term “body neutrality” prompted
a shift in her mindset. “Body neutrality gave me permission to move away from painfully striving towards an unattainable aesthetic ideal,” she says. “I couldn’t simply leap from worrying that my body looked disgusting and that I was failing in some way, to loving every inch of myself. Body neutrality felt like a healthy middle ground. It was saying, ‘This is fine: I’m lucky to have an overall healthy body, and I’m going to calm down a bit about it.’”
Your new bod goals
This middle ground seems to be a useful sweet spot; a reminder that body image is a work in progress. “Being neither completely loving nor completely hateful towards your body can be an important step towards breaking the black/white, good/bad polarised thinking that often accompanies body issues,” says Stella Stathi, a psychologist who specialises in body image.
“It can give you something concrete to aim for that doesn’t feel too overwhelming or impossible but is still an important step forward.”
For Rebecca, embracing a neutral stance was not only more achievable, it has set her on a path towards a more body-positive place. “First, I stopped waking up at 5am to go to [fitness] classes. Then I ditched the samey salads and started cooking according to Ayurvedic principles, which nourished my body and made me feel good. I started doing barre and yoga, which I genuinely love, and I began to appreciate my body for what it could do, rather than what it looked like.”
In this way, exercise can help even those with the most negative body image reach a more neutral place. Personal trainer Hannah Lewin uses the principles of body neutrality to assist her clients with their goals. “Body neutrality can be a useful way of helping someone to concentrate on improving their strength and fitness without focusing too much on aesthetics,” she explains. “Setting goals like improving your 10km run time or lifting heavier can make you realise just how capable your body really is – and acceptance will feel easier.” Think back to the last time you smashed a PB in the gym or on the track. Those legs you can’t stand to see in the mirror don’t seem that bad when you realise they can carry you 5km in 25 minutes, right?
Adopting a neutral stance could also be a healthier approach in itself. Try to feel positive about anything all the time – be it your body, job or relationship – and you’re probably setting yourself up to fail. Neutrality gives you a free pass – some leeway for those days when you just want to crawl back under the doona and start again tomorrow.
It’s for this reason that some argue it’s even more inclusive than its predecessor. “Disabled people – especially those of us who are of colour – are often still left out of these types of conversations,” says Keah Brown, an activist who writes about her disability. “Neutrality provides people with the space to work through their complicated issues with their bodies.”
Among its advocates, the overwhelming feeling that comes from embracing a body-neutral stance is freedom. Freedom from thinking too much about your body; freedom from the emotional energy of striving to love all of it. “When you pay less attention to your appearance and give less weight to those negative thoughts, it frees you up to focus on other aspects of your life,” says Bamford. “That could be your family, friends or work but also getting back to your personality traits – the things that make you
Let’s slide into neutral.